If youre playing buzzword bingo with friends during President Obamas upcoming speech on why its a good idea to lob a few missiles at Syria, I sure hope you didnt get a card with a space marked Libya. Thats a word the president hasnt uttered once as he lobbies Congress to go along with his plans for an attack on Syria.
Libya, if you recall (and he certainly prays that you dont) was the presidents last experiment with creating democracy through the innovative use of high explosives. Its now known within the administration as The Intervention That Dare Not Speak Its Name, because Libya is a complete mess thats getting worse by the day.
The idea in Libya was that wed fire a few rockets over Moammar Gadhafis head to teach him a lesson about shooting civilians, then be on our way. No long and expensive war, no regime change, just a quick but firm rap on the knuckles. Change the names Gadhafi and Libya to Assad and Syria, and its practically identical to what President Obama is saying now.
But literally nothing in Libya worked out the way the president said it would. U.S. involvement lasted not a few weeks but eight months and cost $1 billion. The few rockets turned into hundreds of missile strikes and bombing runs. The assurances that we werent planning a regime change which rang hollow from the start; you dont fire cruise missiles at somebody to signal your neutrality ended in the capture and murder of Gaddafi by the rebels we supported.
Standing at the end of his trail of broken promises, President Obama was far from abashed. The Libyan intervention demonstrates what the international community can achieve when we stand together, he declared in August 2011, boasting that the power of people striving for freedom can bring about a brighter day.
Those ringing words are practically the last the president has even spoken about Libya, for good reason. If he gave a speech about the place today, it would probably sound more like a recent headline from the British newspaper The Independent: We all thought Libya had moved on it has, but into lawlessness and ruin.
Post-intervention Libya is a witchs cauldron of crime, corruption and terrorism. Armed militias roam the countryside like martial motorcycle gangs, shaking down anyone they please. Government security forces are too weak to do anything about it, and, in any event, preoccupied with their own brigandage the daughter of Libyas imprisoned spy chief last week was snatched by one police force away from the custody of another.
Civilians know better than to raise a peep about any of this: Three dozen or so who mounted a protest outside the barracks of a militia in eastern Libya a few weeks ago were killed on the spot. Human Rights Watch has barely been able to keep track of the wave of political assassinations in recent months. Even the most trivial political disputes escalate to mayhem a heart surgeon who tried to carry out government orders to fire a hospital director was savagely beaten and then jailed by security forces.
Yet these may soon be regarded as Libyas good old days. Wildcat strikes by mutinous refinery workers have brought Libyas oil industry, the heart of its economy, to a virtual halt. From the 1.6 million barrels of oil a day the country pumped under Gaddafi, production has dropped to 150,000 a day, less than half of whats necessary just to pay government workers. Whats left of the Libyan government is surviving on cash reserves, which officials say will run out by the end of the year. Well see how the power of people striving for freedom copes with that.
All this chaos and suffering has not exactly enhanced the reputation of the Western powers who helped depose Gaddafi. Along with the assault that left four Americans dead in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, there have been terrorist attacks on British, French and European Union diplomats. Both the United States and Great Britain have pulled most of their diplomats out of Libya.
Last week, President Obama, trying to make his case for attacking Syria, said Congress needed to remember the lessons of World War II. Id say the president needs to remember the lessons of Libya: that the Middle East is fraught with ancient religious, ethnic and tribal rivalries only dimly understood in the West. That they erupt in unpredictable and vicious ways when the balance of power is upset. And that theres probably a better way to deliver a prescription for peace and prosperity than in the payload of a Tomahawk missile.